Latin America: the Colonial Era

European background: Spain and Portugal

The Spaniards and Portuguese inhabit the Iberian peninsula, which forms the southwest portion of Europe. In Medieval times, however, they had experienced a history quite different from that of other southern Europeans. This had been dominated by the Muslim conquest of most of the peninsula in the early Middle Ages, and the Christian Reconquista which followed, which lasted for the rest of the medieval period.

The Reconquista was a long struggle between several Christian kingdoms on one side, and the Muslim presence on the other. The Christian kingdoms, despite often fighting amongst themselves, gradually gained the upper hand (against the equally quarrelsome Muslim emirates), and the last Muslim state fell to them in 1492.

By then only three kingdoms, Portugal, Castile, and Aragon, covered most of Iberian peninsula,  and the last two had recently become united through royal marriage into the dual kingdom of Spain. While Christians made up the majority in the population, uniquely for Europe they shared their lands with other people of very distinct race and culture. Muslim Arabs, or “Moors”, as the Christians called them, made up most of the population in parts of the south. By the late 15th century there were also present many African slaves or ex-slaves, brought over either from the slave markets of North Africa or from lands south of the Sahara, which Portuguese ships had been visiting for several decades.

Virtually all Africans, and many Arabs, filled roles as household servants, slaves on estates, or craftspeople. They were to be found all over the peninsula. Possession of African slaves was widespread amongst the upper classes. Many slaves were freed, leading to the emergence of communities of free Africans, or people of mixed race.

In the Reconquista the Christians had pushed the Muslims back through military conquest. Victorious Christian nobles and knights were rewarded with grants of land, or fiefs, along with the Arab (or Arabized) cultivators who lived on them. The newly subjugated Muslims long retained most of their culture, but were gradually Christianized and absorbed. Jews and Moors who had refused to convert were eventually forced to emigrate. The Inquisition became the agent for enforcing strict Catholic orthodoxy on those who had accepted conversion, and their absorption into the triumphant Christian society of the victors.

The Iberian Christians’ relations with the conquered Moors was to provide a model for their treatment of the inhabitants of the Americas.


One feature of Iberian Christin society which the Spanish and Portuguese did share with other southern Europeans was the central place of the city in their culture.

In this context, the term “city” stands for a walled town and the surrounding territory it controlled. This was in essence a continuation of the ancient city-state of the classical Mediterranean. Although the majority of the population was engaged in farming and related rural activities, the political structures by which they were governed, and the social and economic activities in which they participated, were centred within the city walls. The local elite lived in the city, and the leading families, whose members made up the town council, controlled the countryside through their ownership of large rural estates.

For the Iberians the importance of the city had been reinforced during the medieval period of the Reconquista, when Christian kingdoms and Muslim emirates had risen and fallen, and split and unified, with confusing frequency. Political and social stability was therefor provided by the local city, which in the 15th century was still the focus of most peoples’ loyalty, These city territories had formed the building blocks of medieval Christian kingdoms as well as Muslim emirates.

Wherever they went in the Americas, the Spanish and Portuguese established cities at every opportunity, and they became the means by which they were able to control vast tracts of land.

Family structures

Formal marriage was undertaken only when the partners, and especially the man, considered themselves fully established. Iberian society was therefore full of informal partners (normally a higher class man and a lower class woman) and their illegitimate children. These had a respected place in society, unlike in northern Europe. They were not at the level of legitimate children, but they often remained a part of a man’s household, fulfilling roles as trusted servants. A man might give his “informal” daughters in marriage to male subordinates, to bind them more closely to him.

As Iberian society set down roots in the Americas, the women with whom Spanish and Portuguese  men contracted informal unions (and the vast majority of early settlers were male) were often indigenous Americans or Africana, and the children were racially mixed. Given the respected place of such people had in Iberian – and therefore in Iberian-American – society, a vast amount of social and cultural mingling was able to take place.

A warrior ethic

The centuries of the Reconquista had encouraged a warrior-mentality in the Christian elite, a strong knightly culture famously lampooned in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. This was strongest in the kingdom of Castile, which covered the region of central Spain which had been the militarized frontier region between Christian and Muslim for centuries (“Castile” means Land of Castles). The primary aim of the Christian knights involved was to acquire fiefs (i.e. land and serfs) in recently occupied territory, so that they could set themselves up as feudal lords. They despised manual and commercial activities as being beneath the dignity of men of their class, and their focus was very much on military activities and landownership. These were the typical concerns of the European aristocracy of the time.

Maritime concerns

On the coast, a different tradition predominated, more outward looking and maritime in its motivation. On the southeast coast, Aragon inherited a strong trans-Mediterranean involvement from more than a century of engagement in the Balearic islands, Italy, Sicily and even far-away Greece. On the west coast Portugal had since the early 15th century been exploiting its location along the Atlantic to explore lands new to Europeans and develop trading contacts with them. By the late 15th century the Portuguese had developed a strong trade in ivory, gold and slaves from sub-Saharan West African, and sugar from the Canary Islands and Madeira, and were in the process of pioneering the sea route to India (reached in 1493 by Vasco da Gama’s expedition).

Much of the maritime expertise of the Iberians had originally come from Italians, above all the Genoese. They continued to be heavily involved in Iberian overseas ventures, both as sailors and explorers and as investors. Indeed, the Genoese played a central part in Spanish maritime adventures. They virtually dominated the main Spanish port of Seville. Several of the best known explorers in the service of Spain were Genoese seamen: the man who gave his name to the Americas, Amerigo Vespucci, was one, as was the most famous explorer in all world history, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 took place in the broader context of the European Age of Exploration, and itself was followed many other voyages charting the coasts of North and South America.

Most of these were undertaken in the service of the Spanish crown; however, the Portuguese had been active in exploration for much longer than the Spanish, and fearful of a Spanish takeover of the seas, they appealed to the greatest international figure of the time (in Europe at least) for arbitration. This was the pope, and his intervention led to the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. This agreement between Spain and Portugal divided the non-European world between them, giving the Portuguese a legal claim to eastern portions of South America. The treaty recognized Spain as the rightful claimant to the rest of the Americas.

Spanish America: the early phase

The Caribbean

Having arrived in the Caribbean on his first voyage in 1492, Columbus undertook three more voyages, focussed mainly on charting the Caribbean and its neighbourhood. Other explorers did the same, and soon the coastlines of the islands of the West Indies, as well as the coasts of central, North and South America bordering the Caribbean sea, were well mapped.

Columbus had chosen Hispaniola as the base of operations, and along with the islands of Cuba and San Domingo, this was to remain the scene of most Spanish activity in the Caribbean. The other islands, though claimed by Spain, were more or less neglected.

The city of Santo Domingo was founded on Hispaniola in 1496, and became the capital. Settlers from Spain were soon arriving in such numbers that it soon grew into a sizeable town. The majority of Spanish settlers on Hispaniola – and everyone of importance – lived here.

The early settlers were from all over Spain, and from all walks of life. Men greatly outnumbered women, and a large portion were landless members of the aristocracy – whether the offspring of formal marriages or informal relationships – who were seeking honour and wealth in this brave New World. They were trained in military matters and contemptuous of manual or commercial work of any kind. In all fields apart from fighting and leadership, they were utterly dependent for all their essential needs on the labours of others.

In 1500, in a pattern to be repeated more than once in the early history of Spanish America, the founding explorer, in this case Columbus, was ousted from his governorship due to complaints of misrule by the colonists, and the Spanish crown was able to take direct control of its Caribbean possessions by appointing its own nominee to the post.

Gold-mining had become the foundation of Hispaniola’s economy, but all too soon the mines began to run out. The Spaniards therefore pushed on to the other large islands, notably Cuba, where the cycle repeated itself.

The origins of the encomienda

It was on Hispaniola and Cuba that the encomienda system, which would be a central institution in the Spanish empire in the Americas, first emerged. Its roots lay in the feudal system linked to the medieval Reconquista experience, back in Iberia. It involved the assignment of the labour of groups of native Indians to individual Spaniards, to some extent satisfying the laters’ desire for fiefs and thus membership of the gentry class. More prosaically, it gave them a dependent labour force which could provide their needs (food, housing, work in the gold mines and so on).

As the primary way in which the Spaniards related to their Indian subjects, the encomienda system exposed Indians to European diseases, as well as in many cases to considerable mistreatment. As a result, the indigenous population on whom the conquerors depended soon began to vanish. As their numbers seriously decreased, slave raiding around the edges of the Caribbean become a major activity for the Spanish. As these slaves also died in droves, the Spanish soon turned to the importing of African slaves.

The Mainland

Within less than one generation of arriving in the Caribbean, the Spanish were running out of indigenous people to work for them, and of gold deposits. This prompted them to make a serious effort to explore and settle the mainland. This they did in two more or less contemporary pushes, one from Cuba to Mexico and the other from Hispaniola to the Isthmus of Panama, and then onwards down the Pacific coast of South America to Peru.

In the Caribbean the Spanish had already picked up many of the techniques they would need to conquer the indigenous peoples. One of their tactics was to seek a meeting (“parley”) with an indigenous community and then seize its chief (cacique). Then, using this to demoralize and disorganize his people, they could often take control of the community with comparative ease.

It also soon became apparent that some indigenous groups were prepared to be allies of the Spaniards against hostile neighbours (or, when it came to Mexico and Peru, hated overlords). Moreover, the Spaniards’ horses, plus their steel helmets, swords and lances, gave them significant military advantages over the Stone Age weaponry of the Indians. In their conquests of the Americas, on open ground two or three hundred mounted Spaniards could sometimes defeat armies of many thousands.

Although Spanish expeditions were undertaken under the auspices of the crown, they were planned, organized, financed and manned locally. The leaders were high-status local Spaniards, encomienda-holders who contributed most resources to the expedition. The ordinary members were men without encomiendas, hoping to acquire them as a result of conquest; they were often recent arrivals from Spain.

The Conquest of Mexico

The Mexican expedition under Hernán (Hernando) Cortés set off from Cuba and landed on the coast of Mexico, almost immediately establishing the city of Veracruz. The peoples of the coast had only recently been conquered by the Aztec, a group which dominated central Mexico, and offered the Spaniards no resistance.

Moving inland, Cortés’ expedition encountered the Tlaxcalans, who controlled a powerful state hostile to the Aztec. After some brief fighting (enough for the Tlaxcalans to learn that the Spanish were formidable fighters) they soon decided to join the newcomers against their bitter enemy.

As the Spaniards moved on toward Tenochtitlán, the huge Aztec capital, many of the local states subordinate to the Aztec also came over to them. Once in Tenochtitlán the Spaniards followed their tried and tested tactic of seizing the local ruler, in this case the Aztec emperor Montezuma, and began exercising authority through him.

Unsurprisingly, fighting soon broke out in the capital. In the confines of this island city, the Spaniards were not able to bring their usual military advantages to bear, and were expelled from Tenochtitlán with heavy losses. Retireating to Tlaxcala, they rebuilt their forces and set off again for the Aztec capital. After a four month siege they captured the city. They immediately began turning it into their own capital as Mexico City.

Other parts of central Mexico soon came under Spanish control, and the Spaniards founded several cities. Soon more expeditions were moving out into Guatemala, Yucatán, and the north.

The most famous of these would be that of Vazquez de Coronado, between 1540-42, which explored the south and west of the present-day United States and laid the foundations for Spain’s control of a huge region stretching from California to Texas. The actual Spanish presence here would be limited to a thin scattering of haciendas (see below), missions and forts, but their impact on the native American peoples of the area would be real enough. Also, their presence would lead indirectly to the rise of an entirely new kind of society on the Great Plains of North America.

The Spanish would also claim Florida, and established the first permanent European settlement in North America there, at St Augustine, in 1565.

Cortés acted as governor for a time, but his authority was undermined by rivalries amongst the leading Spanish settlers. Soon the Spanish Crown succeeded in installing its own nominee as viceroy, answering directly to the king in Madrid.

The Conquest of Peru

Even before the Mexican expedition had set off, the Spanish had been active to the south, in Panama and Nicaragua. However, the climate was hostile, and the native inhabitants had little wealth and little to offer the conquerors. An expedition under Francisco Pizarro therefore set off southwards, down the Pacific coast of South America. Here they came across Andean coastal peoples who were in touch with a mighty empire, that of the Inca. Spanish interest was keenly aroused by the evidence of great wealth they saw. In 1530 Pizarro led an expedition into Inca territory. This met virtually no resistance from local groups and were aided by the fact that a wide-ranging civil war was raging within the Inca empire at the time. In 1532 Pizarro was able to captured the Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, at a parley. The next year, having seized huge amounts of treasure, the Spaniards executed the Inca emperor.

After the execution of the Inca emperor, the Spaniards advanced on Cuzco, the traditional capital of the Inca.  They met with little resistance, and at Cuzco the Spanish founded their own city. However, they did not establish their capital there. Instead they soon established a new city of Lima, on the coast, and made it the capital of Peru. This decision was to mean that the indigenous populations of the central highlands would be separate from the main centre of Spanish population on the coast (where most of the indigenous population was soon lost to disease). As a result there was not nearly the same degree of racial and cultural mingling between the two groups as would be the case in Mexico.

In Peru itself, the Indians rose in widespread revolt in 1536, centring in Cuzco. Once this had been put down, the region was quiet, although an Inca prince took refuge with his followers in a remote region, where they held out for more than a generation.

Peru was very soon a source of dazzling wealth for the Spanish: the Inca had developed silver mining in their realm and the Spaniards took these operations over as a going concern. Struggle for control of this wealth soon fuelled factional struggles amongst the Spanish leaders, and a series of violent struggles occurred in the late 1530s through to the early 1550s. Pizarro, now the governor of Peru, was assassinated in 1541. The Spanish Crown then took control of the region, and a royally-appointed viceroy was soon installed in Lima. Gradually he and his successors established their authority over the turbulent settlers.

Later Conquests

Mexico and Peru (which at this time included modern-day Bolivia and Ecuador) remained the two main centres of the Spanish presence in North and South America until almost the end of the colonial period. From them, more peripheral regions were gradually explored and occupied (dates show start of permanent settlement): Guatemala (from 1524) from Mexico, and Argentina (1553) and Chile (1540) from Peru.

The occupations of Colombia (from 1510), Nicaragua (1522), Honduras (1524) and Venezuela (from 1527) were all started independently, from bases in the Caribbean. Paraguay was partially colonized from the River Plate region (1542 – this latter having to be abandoned through pressure from indigenous peoples), and Uruguay had no formal colonization until the early 18th century.

Colonial Spanish America

Major institutions of church and state

The Church

A major motivation for the Spanish to conquer new lands was to convert their new subjects to Christianity. It is hardly surprising that the church was a hugely powerful presence in Spanish America, and had an immense impact on the every day lives of all its people, of whatvere racial category.

In Spain, the Catholic Church was effectively a branch of the state, and this situation was transposed to the Americas. The crown appointed bishops and other high church officials, and took a strong interest in church matters.

Church organization sprang up in the central areas of Mexico and Peru hard on the heels of the first conquerors. Few clerics were involved in the actual conquests, but very soon after parties of friars arrived. They were followed by bishops and other senior churchmen, and archbishoprics were centred on Lima and Mexico City.

The higher-ranking clerics lived and worked almost exclusively in the cities, but lower clerics were active with the Indians in the countryside. They were based on the encomiendas, which functioned as parishes.

However, the encomiendas soon came in for harsh criticism from churchmen, who accused them of oppressing the Indians. The Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas was the most famous of these critics and campaigned for the total abolition of the encomienda system, arguing that the clergy should be in charge of the Indians.

Many Indian groups accepted Christianity and were active in building churches for themselves. Those churches had the same function as pre-conquest temples, acting as the symbolic centre of the community. The saints whose statues they contained had similar functions as pre-conquest ethnic gods.

Later, regional cults grew up with the appearance of locally born saints, for example St. Rose of Lima (Santa Rosa de Lima); also, miraculous shrines appeared with a far-flung appeal, such as that of the Virgin of Guadalupe near Mexico City.

A darker manifestation of church activity was introduced of the the Spanish Inquisition into the Spanish colonies at the end of the 16th century. Its tribunals were based in Mexico City and Lima. These ecclesiastical courts, designed to root out heresy and enforce orthodoxy, were if anything even harsher in the New World than they were in the Old.

In the mid-16th century the Jesuits arrived in the Americas. They set up schools for the Spanish population and missions (which included small schools) for the indigenous peoples.

A remarkable episode involving the Jesuits was their setting up of numerous reducciones near the borders between present-day Argentine, Paraguay and Brazil. In these, they concentrated scattered Indian populations into larger units, the better to defend them against marauding Portuguese groups of Bandeirante slave raiders from southern Brazil. Here they built a defendable town, complete with church, school and so on, organized the people on a co-operative basis for agriculture and craft production (they sought to be as self-sustaining as possible), and organized militia-type defence units for defence, manned by the inhabitants of the reducciones. Tens of thousands of Indians were grouped in this way, and reducciones functioned almost as “states-within-a-state”.

In 1767 Jesuit order was expelled from Spain and her colonies. Except in the reducciones of the Argentine-Paraguay-Brazil border, the Jesuits had failed to recruit put down strong local roots, and were seen to be aloof from the rest of Spanish American society. They had also been the wealthiest of the orders, arousing considerable envy. Their expulsion was not mourned. For the Indian reducciones, however, the expulsion was a disaster. They now lay wide open to attack from the Bandeirante, and many were captured and enslaved. Others merged into the broader society of Latin America society.


From the outset, the conquest and occupation of the Americas by the Spanish was undertaken under the auspices of the crown. Overall direction of the American colonies was in the hands of the Council of the Indies, one of a number of royal councils through which royal government was carried on. This body issued decrees, heard appeals, and, crucially, made appointments to high offices.

From the earliest phase of the Spanish overseas empire, the crown had established the Casa de Contratación, or board of trade, located in Sevilla. This government department acted as the conduit through which all people and goods transiting to and from the Americas must pass – it was responsible for customs, emigration and shipping, including the organization of the Atlantic convoys.

The distances between Spain and her American colonies meant that, in practice, almost all government activity depended on the officials on the spot. In the earliest days, the royal governor was invariably the leader of the conquering expedition. In the years that followed, however, rivalries and unrest among the conquerors, plus continued Spanish immigration, undermined the cohesion of the original conquering group, and the royal government was able to appoint its own governor and officials. It did so with the support of probably the majority of local Spaniards.

From early on, therefore, both Mexico and Peru had a viceroy who was appointed directly by the king of Spain (through the Council of the Indies). He represented the monarch and stood at the very pinnacle of colonial administration. He was drawn from the highest nobility of Spain, and filled the office of viceroy as part of a longer career in the royal service.

The viceroys were surrounded by large retinues, many of whose members had come with him from Spain. Some, like him, were members of the high nobility.

Alongside the viceroy sat a council called an audiencia. These were primarily judicial in their activities, and were responsible for hearing complaints against the viceroy and his officials. They also had special responsibility for protecting the rights of Indians.

Answering to the viceroy were various administrative institutions, the outstanding example being the treasury office, reflecting the crown’s primary interest in the colonies being the shipment of silver revenue back to Spain.

The way much of Spanish government operated was based on litigation – complaints from subjects about crown officials, or each other. As a result, these channels of royal government spawned a host of lawyers and notaries, who represented complainants or government officials. These formed an important element within the elite of the Spanish capital cities in America.

These governmental institutions and the personnel which staffed them were based in the cities, particularly the colonial capitals of Mexico City and Lima. Government hardly existed outside the cities; governmental functions were more or less completely devolved to the encomiendas, which exercised almost complete authority over their Indian workers.

As time went by, as the Spanish population increased and their area of settlement expanded, subsidiary provincial governments were set up, with their own capital cities, governors (captains-general), audiencas and bishops.

The Bourbon reforms

In the early 18th century a series of important changes occurred in Spanish North and South America in the 18th century. Dynastic changes in Spain – the replacement of a branch of the Habsburg family by a branch of the more modern-minded French Bourbons of French origin (1700) – led eventually to changes in the way the Spanish empire in the Americas was administered.

The change in dynasty opened the doors to broader European influences reaching Spanish America. The intellectual movement in 18th century Europe known as the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationality, penetrated first Spain and then Spanish America. In the later half of the century Spanish American writers were producing journals and books promoting reason, science and efficiency. They were particularly concerned with the development of their own regions. In matters of government, they demanded it to be more rationally organized, efficient, and free of church influence.

Royal officials sent out from Spain sought to oblige them. A major Bourbon reform of the 1780s created  large districts called intendancies. These were smaller administrative units than the huge viceroyalties had been, but their heads, called intendants, were responsible, not to the viceroy, but directly to the crown in Spain.

This was a long overdue measure as, in the centuries since the first establishment of the viceroyalties, the Spanish area of settlement and culture area had expanded immensely, and also become much deeper in its penetration of the whole of society; yet, despite this, royal government scarcely existed outside the seats of the viceroy and the captains general.

In military affairs, a hotch-potch of guards, garrisons, port defences, militias and forts had grown up over the centuries to provided Spanish America’s security, and there was no centralized command structure. In the late 18th century such a structure was out in place, along with the  professionalization of the military.  The topmost commanders were Spaniards from Spain, but below them units were officered and manned locally. They were also stationed in the locality where they were recruited.

In religious matters, a major step was taken with the expulsion of the Jesuit order from Spanish America (and Spain) in 1767. The Jesuits had failed to recruit many locals, and were seen to be aloof from the rest of Spanish American society. They had also been the wealthiest of the orders, arousing considerable envy. Their expulsion was not mourned.

In economic policy, the late 18th century saw a dramatic change of approach in the declaration of free trade within the Spanish empire, so that any port could trade with any other.

Colonial society in Spanish America

For Spain, the main purpose of its American possessions was the access to silver (and to a lesser extent gold) that these territories gave her. Spanish occupation in the Americas therefore focussed on a handful of key areas, connected by a few major transport routes, along which people and products flowed in, and silver flowed out.

For Mexico, the links were from Veracruz, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, to Mexico City, in the central highlands, and on to the mines in the north. For Peru, the chain consisted of a transit across the Isthmus of Panama, down the west coast of South America to Lima, and on to Potosí and other mining centres in present-day Bolivia. It was within these areas that Spanish populations concentrated, and that the earliest Spanish-American societies developed.

In the Americas, the focus of Spanish colonial experience was the city. It was here that all the main institutions of colonial society – administrative, religious, economic – existed; at first they barely touched rural areas, except for in the mining regions (and these soon became urbanized). The only interest the Spaniards had in the countryside and its indigenous inhabitants was as a source of labour and tribute. Conversely, the only contact that most Indians had with the newcomers was as enforced labourers under the encomienda system (see below).

The chief cities of Spanish America were the capitals of Mexico and Peru. Around them a network of secondary cities gradually developed. This process was accompanied by the partial incorporation of the countryside into Spanish society, a development made easier by the decline of encomiendas and the spread of the more market-driven haciendas.

In the 18th century, broad changes across the world – particularly the growing economic power of Europe and its increased appetite for American commodities, brought about a major transformation within the Spanish colonies. The economy became more dynamic and diverse, and the transatlantic trading system on which the economies of Spanish America depended was liberalized. Eventually, Spanish South America saw a shift of gravity, away from Peru and the Andes and towards the Atlantic coast of Argentina.

The Cities

In the early days of Spanish America, once an area had been conquered, a city (initially hardly more than a stockaded encampment) would be founded, and the conquerors – conquistadores – would allocate local groups of Indians among themselves as encomiendas. The conquistadores would then send out appeals to Spain to attract male and female relatives, as well as fellow townspeople and others. A stream of immigrants from Spain would soon start to arrive. These would settle mainly in the city, which would soon grow into a small town around the central square with its governor’s mansion, church, shops and houses.

After the initial conquests, Spanish immigrants poured into Mexico and Peru in their thousands, from all levels of Spanish society. Women were at first a small minority of the Spanish population, but their numbers steadily increased. Probably by the third generation after conquest there were as many women of Spanish descent as men.

These immigrants overwhelmingly settled in the cities. The capitals of Mexico and Peru – Mexico City and Lima, respectively – plus a handful of other places such as Veracruz, the chief port of Mexico, soon grew into major cities by European standards of that time. They were the chief centres of government and church, and here were the topmost administrative and ecclesiastical officials, along with numerous underlings. Here were the leading members of local societies, the encomenderos, with their huge households and followings. Here were the wealthiest merchants, and a whole hierarchy of lesser merchants and traders; here were the most numerous populations of artisans.

Many other cities were founded in the conquest and early colonial period, and most continued to grow strongly in the decades which followed. Apart from immigrants from Spain, they attracted more and more arrivals from the countryside, lured by the prospect of employment and advancement in this new society. A countervailing movement was the flow of lower-ranking Hispanics (people of Spanish colonial culture but of varied racial make-up) into the surrounding countryside. New Spanish-style communities began to emerge away from the original cities, and ew towns came into being, like the older cities Spanish at the centre, Indian at the edges, economically and politically dependent on their parent cities. In some places these secondary centres in turn spawned satellite towns of their own, and entire reguion became enmeshed in a network of urban settlements of varying size.

In such areas the original hard distinction between Spanish city and Indian countryside became fuzzy. In time, many rural Indians were absorbed into Hispanic society, while leading members of local indigenous society would ally and even intermarry with the Hispanic families who were now beginning to dominate the local economy. Affiliations based on pre-conquest community structures became progressively less important.

The countryside: encomiendas and haciendas

The encomienda system expanded over a vastly wider area than had been the case in the Caribbean islands, and each encomienda was far larger. Given that in Mexico and Peru the indigenous communities which were incorporated into the encomiendas were accustomed to paying tribute in kind, unlike in the Caribbean, the encomienda owners (encomenderos) benefited both from their workers’ labour and rent.

The encomiendas of Mexico and Peru were multifaceted economic, political and social units, as had been the fiefs of medieval Europe. They spread across the countryside in the form of huge agricultural estates, and were also involved in mining and a host of other economic activities. They also had a religious dimension, in that they effectively functioned as the parishes of the Catholic Church, which now became active in bringing Christianity to the indigenous people of the countryside. They even paid the salaries of the local clergy.

The encomenderos and their families lived in spacious mansions in the cities, surrounded by large numbers of African slaves and Indian dependents (Africans were a significant group in the population, partly because they shared the same immunity as Europeans to Afro-Eurasian diseases). The encomenderos married women of encomendero families, to form a tight-knit group which dominated the cities’ social and economic life, and controlled their political affairs through membership of the municipal councils.

They managed their encomiendas through their estate stewards, who combined the roles of tax collector, labour overseer and livestock manager. These men were Spaniards of humble origin or, more frequently as time went by, men of mixed blood.


Many of the clergy were unimpressed by the treatment of Indians in the encomiendas, and it was not long before the Spanish royal government, seeking to increase its own authority, was passing anti-encomienda legislation: by the end of the 16th century the encomienda system lost its monopoly on Indian labour and had had its tribute in kind restricted. As a result, encomenderos began to focus more in purchasing – or being granted – large parcels of land, called haciendas. On these estates the workers, mostly Indians, were theoretically paid labourers rather than semi-captives. In reality, their conditions were little better than before: in Mexico, this form of labour came to be known as peonage, and was synonymous with semi-slavery or serfdom.

This move to a more market-driven form of land-holding or labour-management made sense because the Spanish cities were increasingly large sources of demand, for all kinds of rural products. As with the earlier encomienda system, the owners of haciendas were almost exclusively Spanish city-dwellers, removed from the daily round of the estate. This was overseen by the estate steward, assisted by foremen and skilled workers. These groups were usually from the poorer ranks of Spanish society, or of mulatto or mestizo descent. The bulk of the labour force was made up of unskilled, often temporary workers, who would have mostly been Indians.

By the end of the 17th century, encomiendas had virtually disappeared, certainly in the central areas of Mexico and Peru, and replaced by hanciendas.

However important the encomenderos and hacendados were, they formed only a tiny minority at the top of colonial society.

The commercial classes

The long-distance commerce of Spanish America was dominated by the exchange of American silver, plus some gold, for European cloth, iron and other goods.

In early colonial times, the bulk of this transatlantic trade was directed at Mexico and Peru. It was based around annual convoys sailing between the ports of Veracruz in Mexico and Panama, in the Americas, and Seville and Cádiz, in Spain. These convoys were organized by the Spanish government, and were an effective way of protecting ships from pirates and, in time of war with England and Holland, privateers.

By the 18th century, new key areas had arisen in Spanish America, and in Spain the north had become more prosperous than the south, where Seville and Cádiz were located. As a result, there was a potentially significant diversification of destinations for the trade. At the same time, economic and population growth in the Americas, and industrial growth in Europe, had created a striong pressure for a more open commercial system. Finally, and crucially, the navies of Britain and Holland had gained a decisive superiority over the Spanish navy, and convoys laden with silver and gold were an easy and dazzling target for them.

It became increasingly apparent that the best policy under these changed conditions was to allow individual ships to travel between any Spanish port and any American port. Free trade was therefore progressively introduced from 1765 onwards, by 1789 taking in all Spain’s overseas possessions.

The Big Merchants

Merchants formed an important element in the Spanish population. In the early colonial period, the transatlantic import-export trade based on sliver was controlled by Spanish merchants who visited the Americas for short periods of time. These men representing the Seville-based trading companies which had an effective monopoly on this trade. They put down few roots in colonial society, seldom marrying or buying property locally.

In the late 16th century, however, most of these transatlantic firms broke up. From then on the merchants in the large Spanish-American centres tended to trade independently, establishing locally-based companies which had a crucial place in the trading system between Spain and her colonies.

Though still mainly born in Spain, the big merchants now lived permanently in the Americas. They married into wealthy local families, built urban mansions, bought rural estates and invested in a range of commercial and mining enterprises. They developed close links with the colonial government, and even acted as officials in the treasury and the mint. They formed an important element within the elites of the cities; some of the leading merchants became members of the municipal councils. Some acquired noble titles.

Local traders

Below these great merchants were tiers of other merchants of more modest means – still with sufficient wealth and status to belong to the elites of the smaller cities. At the bottom were local traders, who dealt as much with local Indian peoples as with the Spanish. They tended to be from the lower ranks of Spanish-American society, and were often illiterate. They lived a wandering life, moving from one city to another, and did not form a stable element within the society of any one city.


Many artisans of humble origin had migrated from Spain, and, setting up shop in their new homelands, flourished. They bought African slaves and employed Indian apprentices. Over time the artisan class became a mixed group of Spanish, African and Indian heritage. able to speak Spanish and skilled in European crafts. Many were able to enhance their social status by acquiring urban and rural property.


The export of precious metals was the principle raison-d’être to Spain of her colonial possessions in the Americas. Mining was therefore the main driver of the Spanish-American economy. Nevertheless, only relatively few Spanish were engaged in the industry.

In the Andes the great mine at Potosí, in present-day Bolivia, was by far the most important source of silver. These, and other smaller mines, were located in the highlands, near the heartlands of the Andean civilizations of past centuries but distant from centres of Spanish population on the coast. The Spaniards took over the Inca mining operations more or less wholesale, using the strong tradition of long-distance labour obligations already in place under the Inca, though now channeled through the encomienda (i.e individual encomiendas had to provide temporary labour for the mines). This rotating pool of temporary labour supplemented the core of permanent skilled Indian miners.

Silver mining camps at Potosi and a handful of other places began to resemble Spanish towns, with their own councils (dominated by local mining entrepreneurs), merchants and craftspeople.

Other mining operations involved the panning for silver in very remote areas. Small gangs made up mostly of Indians and some Africans, perhaps led by a couple of Spaniards, moved along river banks in search of good sites. These expeditions were often funded by encomenderos, but their involvement was at arms-length.

In Mexico, silver mining sites were on a far smaller scale than those in the Andes, and were situated in the arid, sparsely-populated north. Here a nomadic population of Indians and a few Spaniards worked the mines, far from the main centres of population.

Silver mining in Peru and Mexico reached new heights of production in the early 17th century. Thereafter a series of problems may have reversed the trend for a time (the evidence is unclear).

Racial mingling

One of the outstanding features of Spanish American society, as with Portuguese American society (see below) but in marked contrast to the British colonies of the North America, was the degree to which racial mingling took place. Over time, an ever larger portion of the population was of mixed blood – mulatto if Spanish-Africa, and mestizo if Spanish-Indian. As we have noted above the artisan class became thoroughly inter-mingled, but a higher-status group of mixed parentage also arose.

The encomendero elite tended to restrict formal marriage to those of pure Spanish descent, but informal relationships gave rise to people who were intimately connected to the ruling group, performed trusted tasks for them and took a leading role in society only a little less important than the encomenderos.

The greatest racial and cultural mingling took place in that section of society that stood between Spanish masters and Indian subjects, and therefore had relations with both: household servants, estate stewards and overseers, local traders and so on. This crucial group came to be made up of people from a great variety of backgrounds – new immigrants from Spain and other European countries, Africans, large numbers of mestizos and mulattoes, and, increasingly, Indians who had mastered Spanish language and culture.

To make sense of the racial diversity of this society, the Spaniards developed a complex system of racial categories, ranked in a hierarchy according to how close each category came to the dominant (i.e. the Spaniard’s) group’s sense of itself. As time went by this hierarchy became so intricate that it ceased to perform any useful purpose: by the 18th century all people of mixed blood had come to be designated simply as castas.

Indeed, for most practical purposes just two categories were often recognized, Indians and others. People of mixed descent had become so assimilated into Spanish-American culture that they were indistinguishable from Spaniards. Those who rose to the upper echelons of society – and more and more did so – were fully regarded as Spaniards, so that the “Spanish” category included many people with marked African or Indian features. The government and the Church at times attempted to limit this kind of social mobility – for example some laws tried to prevent mulattoes from entering the universities – but these failed to turn the clock back.

The lowest strata of society, the “Indians”, were not unaffected by these developments. Many members of the privileged groups (at least compared to the Indians) were unable to hold onto their positions in society and in many areas a large number of people of mixed descent were falling to the status of the Indians and being incorporated into indigenous communities. Such was the pace of this process that many of these communities had their character and culture permanently altered.

Cultural developments


Literacy and literature were highly regarded amongst the upper reaches of the Spanish population, and universities, mainly for professional training, were soon established in the viceregal capitals of Mexico City and Lima.

The conquistadores and early settlers produced a large number of chronicles describing (and praising) their achievements. A little later, clerics began to write similar documents about their own activities.

Some clerics also showed a strong interest in the study of indigenous history, language and culture. Some, notably the Dominican monks, used these to describe in lurid terms the iniquities of the conquistadores and argue for the rights of Indians.

The indigenous peoples of central America had long possessed writing, and fruitful cooperation between Spanish clerics and indigenous record-keepers led to the adaptation of the Latin alphabet to indigenous languages, and to the writing down of the histories of pre-conquest societies. The Andean societies, although possessing sophisticated record-keeping systems, had not developed writing as understood by the Spanish, and after the conquest they did not take to alphabetic writing on the same way as in central America. Clerics studying pre-conquest history and society had to rely far more on oral evidence.

Later, the chronicles were supplemented by broad religious, legal, or general surveys, taking in the entire Spanish-American scene. This paved the way for the emergence of a distinctive Spanish-American literature, with indigenous authors affected by both Spanish and indigenous traditions. Notable were the 17th century nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, in Mexico, famous as a poet, dramatist, and essayist; and the historian and social commentator (don) Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, In Peru. Some indigenous writers produced literature in their native languages, for example in the Nahuatl language of central Mexico.

Art and architecture

An elaborate ecclesiastical art and architecture arose and flourished in Spanish Americawhere “Spanish colonial” style developed.

Spanish colonial cities were laid out in a grid patter (as was specified by law). Churches and public buildings were constructed with the deliberate aim of creating a powerful impression of power and authority on the indigenous people. Church architecture, as seen in the enormous Cathedrals, the local churches and the rural missions (often built on hills, both for defensive purposes and to maximise the awe which they inspired), reflected these purpose. So too did the public government buildings and palatial mansions seen at the centres of cities, spaced round the city square. The overwhelming effect was one of order, magnificence and beauty.

One reason why many colonial buildings had such a striking visual impact on the eye was the marked contrast between the solid, functional simplicity of the overall design with the gorgeous Baroque ornamentation imported from Spain. In Mexico in particular, the ultra-Baroque Churrigueresqu style of the 17th and 18th centuries added even more extravagant decor to the buildings.

Post-conquest indigenous society

The most dramatic impact that the conquest had on the indigenous population was drastic demographic loss. This was not confined to the conquest period itself: large epidemics occurred through the 16th century and on into the 17th century.

The overall extent of the population declined has been subject to wildly varied estimates, but what is clear is that it affected different regions in very different ways. The hot, low-lying areas of the Caribbean islands and the coastal regions of Mexico and Peru saw disastrous losses which effectively destroyed whole societies and cultures. The peoples of the temperate highlands, both in Mexico and Peru, did not suffer the same kind of calamity. Certainly they experienced very serious epidemics and their numbers were significantly reduced, but ethnic and cultural identities were able to survive, as were their languages.

The majority of the indigenous population continued to lead their traditional lifestyles across the countryside. They would only infrequently have set eyes on a Spaniard. They owed labour and tribute obligations to the encomienda-owner and, through him and his stewards, to the state; however, these were similar to those they had owed to their own chief and, through them, to the distant Aztec Inca rulers. Later, a large number worked on haciendas, theoretically free but often in a condition of semi-bondage.

Probably the greatest internal change in their lives was the end of warfare, endemic in pre-conquest times. Since participation in warfare had been a bug determinant in one’s status in society, the fact of its suppression by the Spaniards must have been discombobulating. Furthermore, there was an entirely new form of mobility now open to them (or in some cases forced on them), which was the movement away from their own indigenous society into the completely different world of the Spanish city.

The interaction between Spanish and native was most intense in the Mexican highlands, where a large indigenous population came to co-exist with one of the main centres of Spanish population in the Americas. From the early days there was considerable a cross-fertilization of cultures (and ethnicity) here, and a rich hybrid culture soon emerged here. In other parts of Spanish America this process was less intense and slower in incubation, but it was at work everywhere.

Many Indians were caught up in an attempt by the Spanish government to gain more control over them by relocating small groups into larger concentrations, called reducciones. These were usually under native chiefs, who themselves were under the general supervision of a Spanish official.

Each had its own church, school, travellers hostel, all grouped round a square. The aim was to familiarise Indians with the ways of the Spanish, especially Christianity; and give them an education which turned them from being “barbarians” into “civilized” people. Another key aim was to make it easier to extract taxes from them.

Sadly, many of these reducciones did not take account of the centuries-long adaptation to their local environments by the traditional Indian societies, to which their crops and techniques had been perfected over many centuries. For example, in the Andes many peoples lived in very small, scattered communities to take advantage of the different climate zones that the mountain terrain offered – once concentrated in a larger community, these zone were more distant and harder to get at. Nevertheless, some of these new communities did flourish, and became the basis for modern towns.

The Jesuit reducciones of the Paraguay-Argentine-Brazilian frontier region were in a very particular group, and have been dealt with above.

Frontier regions

Away from the centres of Spanish population in Mexico and Peru were more much more extensive areas of more marginal importance, at least from the Spanish point of view. These regions were gradually explored and occupied from the main centres, with a higher proportion of more humble Spaniards, plus non-Spanish Europeans, Africans, mulattoes and mestizos. In this way Guatemala, Venezuela, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile were colonized.

Subsequent immigration to these peripheral regions was much thinner than to the early areas of settlement, and was sometimes almost nonexistent for a long time, as in Paraguay. Spanish society in these fringe areas long had a frontier character, lacking features such as the presence of numerous Spanish women, practicing Spanish artisans and wealthy transatlantic merchants.

There were no silver mines (though some gold mines did operate), and, depending on a much more thinly scattered indigenous population, the encomenda system could not generate the kind of wealthy elite households which dominated Mexican and Peruvian society. The Spanish incomers and their dependents were much more closely intertwined with the Indian communities amongst whom they lived. The settlers dealt with the Indians on an individual basis, or in small groups, not in the large, undifferentiated masses which the encomiendas of Mexico and Peru relied on.

In these regions the pattern of church organization and activity largely took the form of missions, where a small community of priests or, in certain areas (e.g. Mexico and in Paraguay), Jesuits, would be planted and over time attract local Indians to live there. The Church’s missions had their parallel in the army’s forts, built to keep an eye on the wild peoples of these frontier regions.

Where the Indians were almost entirely nomadic, such as in the far north of Mexico or the far south of Chile, the relationship between Spaniards and Indians was characterized by continual hostility, with a minimum of contact. Some Spanish towns were established in these areas, but they were just that – Spanish. The only indigenous people living in them were uprooted and partially Hispanized Indians from elsewhere.

As time went by, some of these fringe societies began to prosper. Areas that were able to supply products in demand in the central regions, such as Guatemala, Venezuela, Chile, and northwestern Argentina (i.e. that area closest to the Potosi mines), moved most quickly in this direction. Where this development occurred, societies here began to more closely resemble those of the central areas in Mexico and Peru.

The Atlantic coast

Mexico and Peru formed the heartlands of the Spanish American world up to and into the 18th century. All the other regions were more or less peripheral. From the middle of that century, however, the Atlantic seaboard began to emerge as a major region in its own right. This was the result of substantially increased European demand for its products, especially hides.

The Río de La Plata region was very much a frontier region until that time, and Paraguay remained isolated and poor. Buenos Aires was a small port, the Argentine plains were home to inhabited by small nomadic groups of hunter-gatherer, plus some mestizos (later to be called gauchos) who hunted the herds of wild cattle who were descended from escaped domesticated beasts brought by some earlier Europeans.

From the 1770s the liberalization of the imperial trading system transformed the region. Buenos Aires began to play a role in Spanish American silver trade: importing European goods for onward despatch to the Potosi mining region, and in exporting silver from that region. The crown created the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata based in Buenos Aires in 1776, which included the Potosí region. Buenos Aires became a capital city like Lima or Mexico City, and it grew dramatically.

The north: Venezuela and the Caribbean

In northern South America, Venezuela also boomed in the 18th century. The European demand for its main product, cacao, increased very strongly, and its port, Caracas, grew on a par with Buenos Aires. Smaller satellite towns along the Venezuelan coast also flourished.

In the Caribbean, long neglected by the Spanish, the smaller islands along with Jamaica and the western end of Hispaniola, had been occupied by French and English settlers in the 17th century.  There they had established one of the great industries of the 17th and 18th century, sugar growing. By the late 18th century the non-Spanish Caribbean islands had replaced Brazil as the world’s greatest sugar producers. The Spanish Caribbean islands (primarily Cuba and Puerto Rico) had not participated in this boom, but in the second half of the 18th century the Cuban economy grew rapidly on the basis of tobacco export. The population here was more balanced between people of European and African descent than in the French and English possessions.

After the loss of French Haiti to a major slave revolt in 1791, and the end of French sugar production there, Cuba at last began to develop a large-scale sugar growing industry. It never specialized in the crop to the exclusion of all else, however, as the French and British islands had done.

Brazil: Portuguese Latin America

The early phase

The Portuguese first visited the Brazilian coast in 1500 on the way to India, and claimed ownership of it; however, for decades they neglected it. The only commercial resource of the area was brazilwood, a tropical hardwood useful as a textile dye. This gave the area its name. However, the brazilwood industry did not bring about the country’s settlement; some trading posts were established on off-shore islands, and that was about it.

About 1530, fearing that the French might encroach on their territory, the Portuguese sent an expedition to drive out the French and established the first formal Portuguese settlement, São Vicente, on an island near present São Paulo. Then, in the mid-1530s, the Portuguese crown divided the entire Brazilian coast into 15 strips of territory, called “captaincies”, and granted them to wealthy individuals who were expected to colonize and develop them. Of these, only four were in fact settled.

Coastal Brazil was very much a frontier area, and the earliest Portuguese settlements had to be fortified against Indian attacks. Gradually, however, some Portuguese created sugar plantations, fazendas, to produce for export. To work them the Portuguese first tried to obtain labour from the local Indians; when this failed they turned to slavery through raiding. A few African slaves formed a a core of trusted workers

In 1548 the Portuguese set up a proper governmental system in Brazil. The crown appointed a governor-general, who established a capital at Bahia, on the northeastern coast. In 1551 a bishopric was created.

At about this time the Jesuits began to arrive, and unlike in Spanish America, were soon the strongest arm of the church. They were active in work with the indigenous population, founding mission-villages amongst them.


Until the last decades of the 16th century, Brazil remained a frontier zone. At that time, however, the sugar industry began an upswing, and in the 17th century Brazil became the world’s largest producer of sugar for the ever-growing European market. Portuguese immigrants became to arrive in some numbers, as did African slaves as plantation workers. Meanwhile, the numbers of indigenous peoples were in decline, through death and flight to the interior. During the 17th century  Indians had all but vanished from the northeastern coast, where the sugar plantations were concentrated. The cities of the northeastern were beginning to look more like their Spanish-American counterparts.

Africans soon came to make up the majority of the local population, but there was never the huge disparity in numbers that would later be found in the sugar islands of the Caribbean. The Portuguese practice was to use of slaves in relatively small units. The plantation owners’ main residences were in the nearest city, where their group dominated the municipal council.

Besides sugar, tobacco and roças were also grown, which used relatively fewer slaves. Away from the coast, cattle ranches began to develop, to supply the coast with meat and work animals.

The more successful Africans (which also meant those Africans most assimilated into Portuguese culture) often ended up in the cities, and a partially free, Christianized African and mixed population grew up here, much as in Spanish America. African cultural elements were preserved, especially in the areas of music, dance, and popular religion, and would become a vital ingredient in later Brazilian culture.

The merchant community flourished in the northeast cities, intermarrying with the planters and serving on the town councils.

Within Bahia, the institutions of government and church had their headquarters. A viceroy resided here, with his large retinue; and there was a high court of appeal, similar to the Spanish-American audiencia, with its gaggle of lawyers and notaries. Monasteries and convents were part of the urban scheme, both in Bahia and in other cities.

Compared to Spanish American society, transatlantic contact remained more important. For example, students went to Portugal for university education, and books were printed there. The transatlantic world impacted on the Portuguese in a less welcome way when the Dutch seized Bahia in 1624, holding it for a year, and controlled important Brazilian territory from 1630 to 1654.

The South

The rest of what is today Brazil was a sparsely inhabited frontier region. Africans were almost absent here. However, the inhabitants of São Paulo, the Paulistas, the chief city of the south and by far the biggest centre of Portuguese population there (albeit not a large city by the standards of the northwest), were very racially mixed. Even the leading families, though of Portuguese ancestry, were strongly influenced by indigenous language and customs.

The Bandeirantes

Theirs’ was a pioneering society, with much effort devoted to exploring the interior and establishing outpost settlements there. Some searched for precious metals, while others developed the bandeira (“banner”) form of slaving expedition. This resulted from the necessity to go farther and farther for slaves, the bandeirantes could spend many months or even years in the interior. They were led by Portuguese or mixed-race people with a Portuguese culture, but were mostly made up of his Indian dependents and other hangers-on. They lived off the land through which they passed. In the process of their activities they did more than any other group to open up Brazil’s interior.

In the late 17th century the explorations of the Paulistas led to the discovery of the major gold fields of the Minas Gerais, inland from Rio de Janeiro. Outsiders poured into the area, and a turbulent “gold rush” period followed. In due course royal officials were able to gain control, and things settled down. By then the Indian population had been swamped, and this region increasingly resembled the northeast, a land inhabited by a mixed population of Portuguese, African, and mulatto, with a large number of slaves and freed slaves.

It is from this time that Rio de Janeiro began to become an important urban centre. In 1763 it was made the capital of Brazil. The northeastern sugar industry still exported more by value than the gold region, but the latter was more dynamic, and other regions in Brazil began to orient themselves to it in important ways: for example the expanding stock-raising regions of Brazil sent their animals to the Rio and Minas Gerais region.

The gold boom had began to wane by mid-18th century. By then the sugar industry was also in decline. as the Caribbean islands reached their peak of production.


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